Writer-director Luc Besson is one of the loosest cannons in movies. You may not always admire one of his films, but it’s a safe bet you’ll never be bored.
Besson’s latest not-boring movie is The Family, which he and co-writer Michael Caleo adapted from a novel by Tonino Benacquista. Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer play Fred and Maggie Blake, and we first meet them as they arrive with their teenage kids Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo) at their new home in the village of Cholong-sur-Avre, in Normandy, France. In the dead of night.
The Blakes move around a lot, and usually in the dead of night, because their name isn’t really Blake. It’s Manzoni. The similarity to “Manson” is probably no coincidence; this family is a bunch of maniacs, every single one.
That’s another reason why they move around so much—they keep blowing their own cover. They’ve been in the Federal Witness Protection Program ever since Fred (real name Giovanni) ratted out his pals in the mob. In the movie’s voice-over narration, he tells us that he’s worth $20 million. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he’s worth that much only to his former associates, and only dead.
Not that the family is without resources; far from it. They have two FBI agents watching their backs round the clock, and a minder, Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), to try to keep them out of trouble—which he does with a permanent sigh of weary resignation.
His resignation is understandable. This gang simply doesn’t know how to keep a low profile. The first thing Fred does when they get to Cholong is to secretly bury the corpse he brought from Nice in the back of their station wagon (the family all the while griping about the stink and blaming it on the dog). The dead man was a Nice grocer who had the gall to sell Fred frozen lobsters claiming they were fresh; his and Fred’s simultaneous disappearance might have raised suspicions if it weren’t for the fact that a Mafia assassin (Jon Freda), hot on the Manzoni/Blakes’ trail, has obligingly wiped out the rest of the grocer’s family.
Meanwhile, during their first week in town, the Blakes haven’t been idle. Warren is bullied and robbed of 10 euros by a school bully, but within a day he’s gathered allies, found the bully’s weak points, and broken half the bones in his body with a golf club, leaving the boy bleeding, sobbing, and happy to pay 100 euros for being allowed to live.
Belle, against her better judgment, accepts a ride home from a classmate. When he drives her to a lake outside town and makes a pass at her, she beats him to a pulp with his own tennis racket, then steals his car to make her way home.
Maggie, overhearing the local grocer badmouthing her and all Americans to a couple of other customers, rigs up an improvised propane bomb in the back room of his store and blows the place to smithereens. And Fred is about to indulge what he calls his “sadistic tendencies” on a snotty local plumber.
With all this, incredibly enough, it’s the smallest thing that blows their cover this time: Warren writes an English-language anecdote for the school paper that, through an elaborate chain of long-shot coincidences, finds its way into the Attica State Prison cell of Fred/Giovanni’s former boss (Stan Carp), who recognizes a joke he once told at one of the Manzonis’ backyard barbecues. (This string of events is fun to watch but hardly necessary—all the don had to do was have his enforcer follow the trail of broken bones, missing persons and blasted shops across France.)
The Family isn’t a movie about gangsters, it’s a movie about gangster movies, a point made explicit when Fred is invited (in his cover guise as an American writer) to comment for a local film-study group on a classic American movie—which turns out to be Goodfellas.
De Niro and Pfeiffer recycle their performances from Analyze This and Married to the Mob, respectively, but with the air of slipping into a comfy pair of old shoes. It’s fun to watch them (and Jones, Agron and D’Leo) go through the deadpan motions of Besson and Caleo’s black-comedy script—as long as we don’t take it any more seriously than they do.